Mitt Romney and the campaign innovation that would have changed nothing

The documentary Mitt premieres later this week on Netflix, and the New York Timesinterviewed the former presidential nominee about his campaign experiences. Romney exercises the prerogative of rejected candidates and offers suggestions on how the republic can avoid repeating its terrible decision. (The Democrats got quite good at this in the 1980s, when they took comfort in the idea that the GOP had an unfair advantage in saying things voters liked to hear.)

Here is Romney’s contribution to the reform pile:

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You know, that’s one of the great challenges, which is how do you communicate who you are in a campaign when you are not known or defined by the public, and when your opposition has as their goal to define you in the most unfavorable light? […] I would love to say to all Americans: “Each candidate is going to produce a film of an hour and a half. You’re going to watch one from each candidate, and then you’re going to vote!”

Romney made the same pitch in a Washington Postinterview (thanks to New York magazine’s Caroline Bankoff for pointing it out), so he must have been thinking a lot about the presentation to the American people that could have changed everything. But deep down he must realize that a battle of infomercials probably would have had zero impact on the election income. Romney, after all, was seen by almost everyone as scoring a decisive win in the first debate against incumbent Barack Obama, but the debate’s effect on the polls eventually disappeared. According to Byron York’s review of Mitt, the candidate himself didn’t buy into the idea that the debate had recast the election, saying at the time that incumbents “get crushed in the first debate, and then they come back.” Indeed, that’s what happened in 1984, when Ronald Reagan’s alarmingly bad performance in the first debate gave Walter Mondale a few days of false hope that he could erase Reagan’s commanding lead in the polls.

The Romney idea may appeal to political reporters, who write about “game changers” like debates, but it won’t impress political scientists who argue that economic conditions outweigh anything the candidates do to win votes. The journalists’ view is understandable, since no reporter wants to preface every story about campaign strategy by writing, “This isn’t going to change anything in November, but…” As a reader, if you’ve been exposed to the political scientists and lost your innocence, you just mentally add this intro and enjoy the descriptive reporting without trying to get any predictive value out of it. (This helps in approaching a lot of journalism, and it’s why prediction-free crime stories are so popular.)

A third approach to interpreting elections is based on demographic trends.* The most famous example is John Judis and Ruy Teixera’s 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, which Teixera updated in the Atlantic in 2012. Their argument is that groups that lean Democratic (such as non-whites, college graduates, and single women) are increasing their shares of the electorate, meaning that Barack Obama had a strong advantage in the 2008 and 2012 races regardless of campaign strategy or economic indicators. Romney’s hypothetical campaign video, shown to voters in the closing days of a campaign, would have little chance of reversing trends that have been taking place over decades.

*There is a possible fourth approach, based on data-driven “moneyball” campaigns that efficiently turn out votes regardless of candidate performance. This was a popular theory after Obama’s dazzling, high-tech 2008 campaign, but for a skeptical look at moneyball politics, see John Sides and Lynn Vavreck’s “Obama’s Not-So-Big Data.”

A demographic approach to elections fits in with the idea of one party having a near “lock” on the Electoral College. The Republicans supposedly had it from 1968 through 1988, winning five of six elections and narrowly losing the other after Watergate. The Democrats have claimed it since 1992, winning comfortably four out of six times and coming within one state of winning the other two elections.

The shift toward the Democrats has come with the party’s increased strength among highly educated voters in relatively high-income states. (California, Illinois, New Jersey, and Vermont are the only states that voted Republican every time from 1968 to 1988 and Democratic every time since.) The Washington Post’s Dan Balz makes the case for the GOP having an “uphill path” next time:

Over the past six elections, Republicans have averaged just 211 electoral votes and have not won more than 286 since 1988. Democrats averaged 327 electoral votes for those six elections, and their lowest total, even in losing, was 251 in 2004. Given the current alignment, the Republicans must find states that have been voting Democratic and convert them to their column in 2016.

But the Monkey Cage’s John Sides (also on the Post website) argues the opposite:

What I’d tell strategists looking at state demographics and Electoral College math is this: In 2016, states will swing — almost in uniform fashion — depending on the underlying political and economic fundamentals. Battleground state demographic trends don’t insulate the Democratic Party from (potentially) a relatively unpopular president and (potentially) an economy that is growing but not very fast. Even analysts who believe these demographic trends portend a long-lasting Democratic majority would agree with that, I think.

And consider this: Since the passage of the 22nd amendment limiting the president to two terms, only one time (1980-88) has the incumbent party held the White House for more than two consecutive terms. The regularity with which control of the White House changes hands also suggests that the playing field may tip in the GOP’s favor in 2016.

The third-term hurdle is an interesting data point; it makes sense that voter grievances against the party in power would accumulate over time, and small-d democratic sensibilities may be offended by one party winning too many consecutive times. But it’s notable that the 22nd amendment took effect when there was a lot of ideological overlap between the major parties. The last half of the 20th century was when the Republicans could nominate a non-ideological figure like Dwight Eisenhower and a November election could feature two genuine centrists (Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976). Now that the two parties are more clearly delineated, there may be a much smaller bloc of voters willing to switch parties for the sake of a change in the White House after eight years.

The Republican Party, to be sure, will eventually change in ways that better appeal to ascendant demographic groups and will take back the presidency. This may not happen until after the party loses its majority in the House of Representatives, since that hard-right majority is hobbling the GOP’s attempts to move to the center on issues like immigration. But it will happen, and a presidential nominee’s campaign videos, or debate performances, will have nothing to do with it.

Image of Mitt Romney from the trailer for the Netflix documentary Mitt, on YouTube.

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Joseph J Dunn
4 years 4 months ago
I suppose it is natural to wonder "what if" after great contests, whether in politics or sports. We all know that doesn't change the original result, but it may offer valuable lessons for the future. But there is room to believe that a well-crafted speech on a key issue can affect the outcome of an election. I'm thinking of JFK's presentation of his faith, and how his religion would, and would not, affect the conduct of his duties if elected. Most likely, that helped a nation get beyond its historical prejudice against Catholics. Barack Obama's pre-election televised monologue on race in America probably helped, and certainly did not hurt, a nation with a long history of racial discrimination. For Romney, some had reservations about his Mormon faith. But as the campaigns and the debates progressed, the larger issue was his role in business. He was, to many people, the personification of the greedy capitalist, the man who shut steel plants and shipped jobs overseas. He was in the upper tenth of "those people"--the one percent. Would a sober, specific presentation of the role of business, including profits, in building the nation with the world's largest economy, highest standard of living, and (even in those days of weak recovery) lowest unemployment rate have made a difference in the election? Could Mitt Romney have drawn clearly the distinction between financial speculation and legitimate risk-taking investment? Perhaps not--we'll never know. But if anyone were to give that speech, it would have been Romney's to give, just as JFK and Barack Obama were chosen by history to explain themselves as people. When Americans understand what is in the heart of the candidate, what informs his decisions, they can cast their votes based on that understanding. We have overcome the prejudices in religion and race. Someday we'll get there with regard to business, profits and wealth. And if that happens from an infomercial, so be it.
Brandt Hardin
4 years 4 months ago
The film promises an intimate look at Romney as a man more than a candidate. However, nothing sheds more light on his ideals than his Magic Mormon Underwear and all their inherent powers! See Mitt unveil his skimpies at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/05/mitt-romneys-magic-mormon-underwear.html

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